New Home for Community
All of us in the L’Arche Boston North community were excited about the new house, none more excited than Frannie. For months before the move from Gandhi House to a newly built L’Arche home, our longtime core member and three-term board member organized what seemed like daily expeditions up Route 110 to monitor progress on the construction site. Sometimes more than once a day.
“Hey buddy pal, we gotta go you-know-where.” So Fran would tell the latest assistant to enter Gandhi unawares. And so the house van would be loaded again with Fran plus any combination of housemates Christine, Dan, and Tom, plus available assistant(s) and even unwary guest(s), to inspect newly installed framing, flooring, wiring, plumbing, or whatever else had been accomplished in the few days or hours since Fran and company had last visited.
Even toilets. Especially toilets. One day Fran and her exploration party discovered that two toilets had been placed on the floor of the bedroom designated for Dan. The toilets were awaiting installation elsewhere, but their presence in Dan’s room led to plenty of laughter back home at Gandhi, especially since Dan specializes in fart jokes.
All of this visiting was a measure of community excitement, but also of community anxiety. It was a big move for core members and assistants who had grown to love Gandhi, the rambling three-story house on Johnson Street near downtown Haverhill, one of four residence homes in L’Arche Boston North. Gandhi was the go-to house for community gatherings like birthday and holiday celebrations; and the new house at 9 Valley Street in the wooded town of Merrimac, on the other side of Route 495, seemed far from the community’s center of gravity.
Yet it is essential that community evolve as its core members do. Community leader Swanna Champlin said, “Gandhi was an old house, and we needed something that doesn’t require so much upkeep. Although we still have a relatively young L’Arche community, several of our core members are aging and some have mobility issues. L’Arche promises lifelong inclusion and care for its core members. We need places for people to age in.”
The new house in Merrimac has two stories. All five core member bedrooms, plus bathrooms and living spaces, are on the ground floor, and that floor is fully wheelchair-accessible. Assistants’ quarters are up a flight of stairs.
Questions about the new house came from the neighborhood in which it was being built. One of our new neighbors on Valley Street called a meeting last winter as plans were being finalized. What would it be like living beside a L’Arche home? Swanna attended the meeting, along with both development and outreach director Pam McGrath and Katie, a core member from Naz House.
Swanna remembers Katie as the convincer. Katie put a human face on L’Arche for the neighbors. “When you bring core members,” Swanna said, “it changes the conversation.” Any possible resistance to the new home seemed to melt away.
Finally in mid-August the as-yet-unnamed house was ready for occupancy. Although all new furniture and appliances were purchased, it took a community-wide effort to gather and move core members’ belongings in a way that did not disturb the rhythm of daily life at Gandhi. Then, on Friday afternoon, August 19, at the end of day programs, four core members moved in.
One month later, when asked how she likes her new home, Frannie gave it a thumbs-up. “It’s quiet,” she said, drawing the word out softly. “And you see more—” Whereupon Fran mimed a turkey flapping its wings. A flock of wild turkeys seems to have sensed something at 9 Valley Street, and just that morning twenty of them, by Fran’s count, had paraded across a side lawn as a few of us were loading into the van. Fran proceeded to tell a mostly factual story about the turkeys charging the van.
Founding core member Phil, who moved in from Assisi House, said he likes sharing a home with his long-time friend Tom, who was at Gandhi. Molly, an assistant at Gandhi and formerly head of house there, said, when asked about the new house, “I like the way the core members like it.”
Even core members from other houses like it. On a recent Sunday afternoon, Devin dropped in from Nazorean House, just after a visit from Assisi residents Jimmy and Christine. Two or three community gatherings at the new house have gone off without a hitch.
On Wednesday, September 14, neighbors were invited for after-dinner dessert and coffee and quite a few came by. One lady said that the midwinter meeting about L’Arche had brought the neighborhood together in a way it had not come together before. A man from up the street sat at the dining room table chatting with three core members, no assistants. That was a delightful sight for several of us at the gathering. Again, a human face had been put on L’Arche.
On Saturday, September 24, community held an open house at 9 Valley Street, and the name for the new home was announced: Pat’s House, in honor of founding assistant Sr. Pat Murphy. The move had been a long process, but the results were on display for all to see.
“Our growth is very slow,” said Swanna, “and I think it’s important that it be slow; because it’s important for people to live well together. Other providers are rolling out homes. L’Arche values the relationships in our homes; they are what make our homes different.”
In a season that has seen the passing of L’Arche Boston North’s founding leader Elizabeth Buckley and longtime assistant Phil Petts, the community they helped foster has moved and grown into a new neighborhood in an adjacent new town.
At the end of September, thirty-three years after its founding the community plans to welcome a seventeenth core member into the fifth bedroom in our new home.
Community coordinator Vanessa Henry noted, “And L’Arche goes on.”